01 February 2024

Scientists have long strived to develop artificial molecular motors that can convert energy into directed motion. Researchers at LiU have now presented a solution to a challenging problem: how motion can be transferred in a controlled manner from one place to another through a “molecular gear”. Molecular motors have the potential for use in, for example, energy storage applications and medicine.

Male researcher drawing a molecule.Researchers at LiU have developed a design principle for how to transfer the rotary motion to another part of a molecular system and have complete control over the direction of rotation. Photo credit Thor Balkhed

“Artificial molecular motors are molecules that absorb light from an external source, such as sunlight, and convert the energy in light into kinetic energy,” says Bo Durbeej, professor at Linköping University, who led the study published in Chemistry – a European Journal.Bo Durbeej.Bo Durbeej. Photo credit Thor Balkhed

“Molecular motors” may sound like science fiction, but in the body there are many biological molecular motors that drive muscles and transport substances inside cells. Chemistry and nanotechnology researchers have long been aiming to develop artificial molecular motors, which may be useful in several areas in the future. Possible applications include using them to deliver medical drugs to the right place in the body or for storing solar energy.

But a motor on its own is not enough. A car having only a motor or an engine but no wheels would not get far. The power from the motor must be transferred – to the wheels, in the case of the car – and this is done via a gearbox. Similarly, the next step in this research field is to construct molecular gears that can transfer the kinetic energy from one part of a molecule to another. Future applications depend on being able to use the motion somewhere else than where it was created.

Taking control over the rotary motion

“Many scientists have long tried to construct molecular gears. We have developed a design principle for how to transfer the rotary motion to another part of a molecular system and have complete control over the direction of rotation. Previous designs have not been able to control the rotary motion,” says Bo Durbeej.illustration of molecular structure.Image from the researchers' computer simulations showing how the rotational motion is transferred from the motor itself to the propeller in a molecular gear

A major challenge with developing a molecular photogear is that the part that you want to rotate, the “propeller”, is attached to the rest of the molecule by a single bond. Single bonds rotate very easily, making it difficult to control directionality. But the LiU researchers have now succeeded in solving this problem by finding a good combination of several factors, including the distance between the propeller and the part of the molecule that constitutes the “motor” itself.

Calculations on supercomputers

The researchers have confirmed that their design works, by doing calculations and advanced computer simulations on supercomputers at the National Supercomputer Centre in Linköping provided by the Swedish National Infrastructure for Computing, SNIC, and the National Academic Infrastructure for Supercomputing in Sweden, NAISS.

“We’ve now shown that our design principle works. The next step is to develop molecular photogears that are as easy as possible to synthesise,” says Bo Durbeej.

The study was carried out with support from the Swedish Research Council, the Olle Engkvist Foundation and the Carl Trygger Foundation for Scientific Research.

Article: A Proof-of-Principle Design for Through-Space Transmission of Unidirectional Rotary Motion by Molecular Photogears, Enrique Arpa, Sven Stafström and Bo Durbeej, (2023), Chemistry – A European Journal, published online 31 October 2023, doi: 10.1002/chem.202303191

See also the journal cover illustrating the research

Translation by Anneli Mosell.

This is the principle behind the "molecular gear"

This is how the "gear" works

Future applications of molecular motors depend on being able to use the motion somewhere else than where it was created, similar to how the power from the motor in a car must be transferred to the wheels. Professor Bo Durbeej shows the principle behind a molecular motor and their design of a “molecular gear”.

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